Women’s hockey in spotlight as inaugural PWHL playoffs take centre stage

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It took until the last period of the last game of the season for the PWHL’s playoff picture to come into focus.

On Saturday, one goal and less than two minutes is all that separated Boston from playoff hockey and an early off-season.

Then, on Sunday, Minnesota had to wait for the outcome of Ottawa’s game to determine whether they’d be practising on Monday morning or having exit interviews.

“I feel like at the beginning of the year, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be tight.’ But this is really tight,” Boston’s head coach, Courtney Kessel, said after her team clinched on Saturday. “This is right down to the nail, the last game.”

It’s been that way all season in the six-team PWHL, with so many games decided by just one goal.

Teams are expecting the same kind of close, physical hockey when the playoffs begin in Toronto on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET). Toronto earned the power to choose its opponent by virtue of finishing atop the regular-season standings, and selected Minnesota over third-place Boston.

Two players compete for the puck in a hockey game.
Toronto selected Minnesota as its first-round opponent, a benefit of finishing first in the regular season standings. The teams are pictured here battling during the regular season. (PWHL)

The other semifinal series, between Boston and second-place Montreal, begins on Thursday (7 p.m. ET).

Both first-round matchups will be best-of-five. The winners will compete in another best-of-five round to crown the first-ever Walter Cup champion.

Here’s a preview of both semifinal matchups:

Toronto vs. Minnesota

Toronto considered a long list of factors when deciding whether to play Minnesota or Boston in the first round, including injuries, travel and recent performance. Players were also consulted.

Ultimately, Toronto picked the team that’s lost five games in a row and has the furthest distance to travel to get to Toronto.

“I think all of us are scrambling to find dogsitters, babysitters, get our passports, and figure out what time our flight is in the morning,” Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said on Wednesday after Toronto announced its decision.

Special teams have been an issue for Minnesota all season, and problems on the penalty kill haunted the team down the stretch.

In the last five games, Minnesota has scored only seven goals, and given up nine goals on the penalty kill.

Hockey players celebrate along the boards.
Minnesota is looking to move past a five-game losing streak that ended the regular season. (PWHL)

“It’s about getting clears, getting timely saves, people blocking shots, everybody being on the same page and buying in,” Minnesota head coach Ken Klee said.

Minnesota boasts two solid options in net with Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney, one of the best defenders in the world in Lee Stecklein, and fast, talented players like Coyne Schofield, Grace Zumwinkle, and Taylor Heise.

An 11-game win streak

They’ll be facing one of the most physical and defensively sound teams in the league in Toronto, which hasn’t looked back after climbing from the bottom of the standings in late January and going on an 11-game win streak.

“As we gained confidence, we still felt like we had so much to prove, and so many areas that we could get better in,” captain Blayre Turnbull said.

“So despite going on such a great winning streak, we played every game and approached every game as if we had more and more to prove, and I think that’s how we ended up in the position that we’re in now.”

For 10 games during the streak, Toronto was perfect on the penalty kill. A big turnaround for starter Kristen Campbell in net has played a role in that defensive performance, but so has the team in front of her.

Toronto has arguably the best defensive pairing in the world in Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast. They boast a number of responsible forwards who are hard to play against and skilled at taking away space from the opposing team.

“We’re a very physical team and we like to play fast,” Turnbull said.

“When you look at NHL teams that are successful in the playoffs, they’re teams that are able to sustain a physical game and a fast game over a series. So I think we’re well equipped for the playoffs.”

WATCH l Hockey North previews the PWHL playoffs:

PWHL Playoff Preview: Toronto selects Minnesota, Poulin vs. Knight dream matchup

Rob Pizzo is joined by Saroya Tinker to break down the 1st round of the PWHL playoffs, as Toronto takes on Minnesota, and Montreal squares off against Boston.

When Toronto struggled to score early on, it was Natalie Spooner and her work in front of the net and on the power play keeping the team afloat. But her teammate’s big season make it easy to look past the role Sarah Nurse has played on both sides of the puck in keeping Toronto at the top. Spooner finished first in the league in both goals (20) and points (27), while Nurse finished tied for second in goals (11) and points (23).

Both Spooner and Nurse have thrived playing against Minnesota, registering a combined 10 points in the four games head-to-head this season. Toronto won three of those games.

While Toronto has momentum heading into the series, Minnesota has something to prove. Namely, that the team that went undefeated in March is more representative of how Minnesota plays.

When players showed up to the rink on Monday morning, Coyne Schofield said they were grateful to have a game to prepare for.

“We’ve put together some great hockey this year, and I think the last five games definitely was not our best hockey,” the captain said. “I think moving forward, it’s a new season.”

Game 1: Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, Coca-Cola Coliseum (Toronto)
Game 2: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, Coca-Cola Coliseum (Toronto)

Game 3: Monday, 8 p.m. ET, Xcel Energy Center (Minnesota)
Game 4: May 15, 8 p.m. ET, Xcel Energy Center (Minnesota) *if necessary
Game 5: May 17, 7 p.m. ET, Coca-Cola Coliseum (Toronto) *if necessary

Montreal vs. Boston

For years, Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin have been two of the most recognizable faces in women’s hockey, with Knight in an American jersey and Poulin wearing the maple leaf.

Both have a proven track record of elevating their games when the stakes are high, and now, they’ll face off on another big stage: the first round of the PWHL playoffs.

A female hockey player in a red jersey, with Poulin and the number 29 on the back, celebrates on the ice.
Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin says it’s an honour to play against Hilary Knight, long a rival on the international stage. (Arianne Bergeron/PWHL Montreal)

Knight, one of the best shooters in the world, had a hat trick to propel the Americans to a world championship on Canadian soil last year.

“It’s always such an honour to play against Hilary Knight, because there’s such a respect there for what she’s done for women’s hockey,” Poulin said.

Poulin always shows up in big games, scoring in more Olympic finals than anyone else on the planet. But the big goals are only part of her game. Poulin backchecks, kills penalties and sticks up for her teammates when necessary.

“She’s a phenomenal player. There’s a ton of respect there,” Knight said.

Boston went into Saturday’s game against Montreal needing a regulation win to keep its playoff hopes alive. Knight showed up, scoring a goal and an assist in the winning effort. But Poulin showed up too, scoring the game-tying goal that looked like a nail in the coffin until Boston’s Kaleigh Fratkin scored a buzzer beater..

Poulin and Knight, who were briefly teammates with Montreal of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, chatted and hugged on the ice after Boston’s win.

The game felt as fast, physical and intense as a playoff game, and the players expect things to get even more physical in the playoffs.

“We want to win so bad that we’re willing to do anything,” Boston defender Megan Keller after Saturday’s win. “We’re willing to block shots, we’re willing to go to the net, we’re willing to hold on to pucks and take a hit.”

A turnaround in Beantown

Boston looked like a different team after the world championship break, securing 13 of a possible 15 standings points.

“In the room, we knew what we had and it’s finally come full circle for us,” Knight said.

Boston’s biggest problem all season has been scoring goals, and the team will need players like Knight, Alina Müller and Hannah Brandt to deliver on that front.

A hockey player in a dark green jersey, with Boston written on it and the number five on the sleeve, carries the puck on the ice.
Boston looked reinvigorated after the world championship break. (Michael Riley/PWHL)

They’ll rely on Keller, one of the team’s best players and top point-getters this season, to continue to eat big minutes. In net, they’ll look to Aerin Frankel, who kept the team in a lot of low-scoring games early in the season.

They’ll face a Montreal team that also has its share of momentum after a solid stretch of play after the break.

Montreal has gotten scoring from up and down the lineup over the last five games, including key goals from Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Catherine Dubois and Maureen Murphy. Kristin O’Neill, Laura Stacey and Erin Ambrose have been stellar since coming back from worlds with a gold medal.

The team also seems to have figured out the recipe for a power play that struggled for much of the regular season. Over the last five games, Montreal scored eight goals on the power play, and two with an extra player with the goaltender pulled.

“The best part is not only has our [power play] unit been converting, but the second unit, I mean, you look at their percentage right now, and it’s through the roof better than ours ever was,” Ambrose said. “It definitely helps us as a group.”

But the X-factor for Montreal might be goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens, who thrives in big games.

Boston and Montreal split the four-game regular season series this year. Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie sees it as an even matchup, with physicality and discipline both key.

“Whoever sticks to their game plan the best is going to be able to win this series,” she said.

Game 1: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, Place Bell (Montreal)
Game 2: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Place Bell (Montreal)
Game 3: May 14, 7 p.m. ET, Tsongas Center (Boston)
Game 4: May 16, 7 p.m. ET, Tsongas Center (Boston) *if necessary
Game 5: May 19, 7 p.m. ET, Place Bell (Montreal) *if necessary

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